How do you feel Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA) has influenced the greater arts community and Brooklyn residents at-large?
I believe that the MoCADA has had an incredible impact in the greater arts community. Prior to founding MoCADA, it was not commonplace to visit the larger institutions and see works of art, performances, film festivals, etc., by or inspired by African Diaspora artists. Through our work, we have demonstrated that these artists have something very special to contribute in creating a comprehensive understanding of humanity and the cultural landscape. When I founded MoCADA, it was with the goal of creating an understanding of “one another” across all racial, class and social lines. The artists that we feature are of all races, addressing issues that impact us all ranging from gentrification and police brutality to rebuilding Haiti and capital punishment.
Many people enter art or politics to represent those who don’t always have a voice or the chance to speak up, bringing awareness of issues and sometimes even changing policy. Do you see more similarities or differences in the ways artists and government officials engage with their communities?
Excellent question. It draws a parallel that I have not quite made yet, but I thoroughly understand. The exhibitions and programs MoCADA curates utilize the creativity of the artist to speak for the community in a way that summarizes, through a work of art, how the community feels about a particular subject. The public programs allow the community to discuss a topic through discussion of the artwork – it is a way that is not as confrontational as directly discussing the topic. Politics require you to address the topic head-on, without the intermediary of the art/artist. As the future Council Member for the 35th Council District, I hope to utilize culture to bring people together and to then impart important messages to the community.
Do you see the relationships between art, community, politics and ‘place’ as adversarial, or more as a fluid exchange? How have you personally navigated all of these areas?
Art, community, and politics are one in the same for me, and I see myself as a vessel to connect these three powerful entities. I understand very clearly the needs of the community and how art can articulate those needs in order to create dialogue that transcends into government. Art is so real and it speaks for itself. It provokes dialogue and opposing views, and it is in that space that change can occur. That is what I look to foster and capture.
What role do you see artists and arts organizations playing in rapidly changing (and dare I say gentrifying) neighborhoods? Do they alleviate tensions and help solve problems, or do they contribute to the issues that divide communities?
Artists have always lived in communities that are now considered gentrified. This is more of a race issue than an arts issue. In predominantly black communities, there have always been artists and arts organizations that were working there to help build and grow the community. They were indigenous to the community, and were working to foster and cultivate the existing culture. Artists and arts organizations that are considered to be gentrifying the neighborhood are generally not from that community, and are mostly white (but not all). They are bringing a cultural aesthetic that is generally contemporary in nature, and outside of the cultural norm of the existing community. These artists/organizations then create a “cool” or “pop culture” environment that becomes attractive to developers who lack the tools and savvy to make something “cool” themselves. The developers then utilize their skills to “capitalize” on what was created. The “pop culture” environment sends a huge signal that the community must really be safe and that race relations must be stable, or else why would that community allow someone from a another race to create in that community so freely? This then opens up a gateway to gentrification.
Was the shift from founding a museum to running for office a natural one?
Running a not-for-profit museum requires one to have a very close relationship with government on the federal, state and city level in order to raise necessary funding on the expense and capital side as well as a close relationship with the many different agencies. It also requires one to have a love for the community and the people that comprise the community. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, and my passion for the Borough and its people will be evident in everything that I put my mind to, from running a museum to running for Office.
Are you still a practicing artist?
I am not a practicing artist in the way of creating a visual work of art. I consider myself a curator of the community. I love to bring very different people together and challenge them to find their commonalities in order to discover solutions.
Laurie Angela Cumbo was born and raised in Brooklyn and attended Spelman College, Atlanta, GA, where she studied Fine Art. She received her MA in Visual Arts Administration from New York University in 1999. Cumbo is credited with developing the business plan for Brooklyn’s first Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), to assist in efforts to revitalize the Borough economically, socially and aesthetically. Cumbo has dedicated her life to community development and preserving the dynamic elements of diversity. She will next run for the office of City Council Member for the 35th Council District.